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Filtering by Tag: Reformed Christianity

21 Christmas Hymns Played on the Piano

Cory Hall

Recorded on December 2, 2013, on my beautiful and freshly tuned 1929 Steinway, these twenty-one hymns are intended to be listened to from beginning to end, providing the listener with nearly 30 minutes of traditional Christmas music. Many of these hymns may be familiar to most listeners; however, some are lesser known and a couple of them date back as early as the 1500s. I play two verses of each hymn with no additions or improvisations. I love purity and nothing is as musically pure as traditional four-part hymn writing. The father of modern music, J.S. Bach, considered four-part hymns (or, "chorales" as Bach knew them) the foundation of music. I play from the 1989 edition of The United Methodist Hymnal. I hope you enjoy these hymns and hope you will listen to them from beginning to end with no interruptions; however, should you wish to select certain hymns timings are provided so that you may fast-forward to that track in the video. God bless you all and I wish you a pleasant listening experience! PLEASE NOTE: Piano teachers and students please scroll down past the video to read my article addressed to you.

1. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel [0:05] 2. Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates [1:46] 3. Savior of the Nations, Come [2:35] 4. Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming [3:43] 5. Away in a Manger [5:09] 6. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear [6:09] 7. What Child is This [7:21] 8. Angels from the Realms of Glory [8:49] 9. In the Bleak Midwinter [9:40] 10. Good Christian Friends, Rejoice [11:11] 11. O Little Town of Bethlehem [12:13] 12. O Come, All Ye Faithful [13:40] 13. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks [15:02] 14. Angels We Have Heard on High [16:13] 15. Silent Night, Holy Night [17:34] 16. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing [19:26] 17. The First Noel [20:47] 18. Joy to the World [22:22] 19. O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright [23:12] 20. Once in Royal David's City [25:16] 21. We Three Kings [26:40]


Dear Piano Teachers and Students

Having played piano for over 40 years, taught piano for over 30 years, and served as a church organist for 11 years I remain fully convinced to this day that hymn playing has become a lost art. Pianists and students of all levels should practice hymns and chorales on a regular basis. Hymns and chorales are, from a practical standpoint, much more important and beneficial than Chopin etudes. Yet, ask any piano teacher or professor if he/she assigns hymns to students and the answer will most likely be "no." Many piano students have fantasies of playing virtuoso etudes as fast as possible, yet few can play a simple hymn with any sort of expression or control or with clear pedaling. Few pianists can sight read simple hymns, which is unfortunate. I really wish this attitude would change. Teachers and students: Take heed!

In order to demonstrate pure hymn playing, I have selected 21 hymns from the 1989 edition of The United Methodist Hymnal. I am using this hymnal because I was an organist in the United Methodist Church and I am most familiar with these particular harmonizations. Pianists who wish to practice hymns need not use this particular hymnal, but rather, practically any church hymnal will do (i.e., Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist). One could also find an edition of Bach chorales, although they are usually more difficult than standard church hymns. The only drawback and complaint I have with church hymns is the layout. Due to the insertion of text between the clefs, there is often too much space between the treble and bass clefs. This creates a visual problem unless one is accustomed to the standard layout of church hymns. Nevertheless, one easily gets used to this extra space between the clefs after playing about a dozen hymns.

The most important aspects of hymn playing on the piano are: fingering, finger legato, finger substitutions, voicing, pedaling, tempo. I will address these points briefly here.

Fingering: Fingering hymns is difficult to explain to students and is really not an exact science. The general rule is to choose fingerings that allow one to play as legato as possible. One should not get in the habit of always practicing hands separately, since very often voices overlap and can be taken with a different hand than indicated. Just because a note appears in the bass clef (like a tenor note) does not necessarily mean it should be taken with the left hand. Similarly, just because a note appears in the treble clef (like an alto note) does not necessarily mean it should be taken with the right hand. Finger substitutions is a technique more akin to organists than pianists; however, in my view piano students should learn and practice them much more often than they appear to do. Very few piano students these days even know what a finger substitution is. Nothing trains a pianist to play finger substitutions better than hymns and chorales. It is not an exact science, but once one can play finger substitutions with ease and naturalness one has gained considerably more control over the keyboard. I use finger substitutions often -- not just in hymns, but all piano music -- and I never write them into the score, but rather, memorize them and have the ability to change them on the spot if I have to.

Voicing: Perhaps the greatest benefit piano students will walk away with after practicing hymns is gaining the ability to control four voices at a time and project or "voice" them to varying degrees. As a general rule when playing hymns like these it is a good idea to voice the soprano or melody line over the other three voices. I remember I used to have a professor in college who always emphasized "projecting the tops," and he said that pianists should make the melody more audible than the harmonies or accompaniments because this is what most people automatically hear. Listen carefully to my video and you will hear that I almost always make the melody line a bit more projected than the other three lines below. A good introduction to this technique is to play a four-voice chord like C-G in the bass and tenor with E-C in the alto and soprano and then practice voicing one note over the others while playing all four notes simultaneously. Pianists do not learn subtleties of voicing and chord control by practicing Chopin etudes. These are skills that one can really only learn by practicing hymns and chorales. Bach was correct when he referred to chorales the foundation of music!

Pedaling: The general rule I use with pedaling is to learn the hymn without any pedal and then only later add pedal for special coloring or connecting. Some teachers say the pedal should not be used for connecting but only for coloring, but I disagree. Even if one has an excellent legato fingering worked out, hymns often need touches of pedal to "fill in the gaps." Pedaling, like fingering, is not an exact science and many hymns do not need much pedal; however, some hymns can be used as an excellent means of practicing pedaling. In fact, hymns and chorales are in my opinion the best vehicle for students to learn pedaling. For example, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is an ideal pedal study in itself. Teachers would gain much by assigning this beautiful hymn to students as a study in pedaling as well as finger independence and control.

Tempo: I have a special system of tempo that is much too involved for this article. It is a system I developed while researching Bach's music that is based on logical "tempo levels" that are distinctly different from each other. These levels are in beats per minute and from slow to fast: 36, 42, 48, 54, 63, 72, 84, 96, 108, 126, 144, 168, 192. These are the primary tempo levels used by Bach and that apply ideally to all other composers and styles as well. (Bach's most common or default "allegro" speed was 84 beats per minute.) They work perfectly for hymns and chorales. In a nutshell, when I determine a tempo for a hymn I select it from this tempo array. This way, there is no guess work. When I record a hymn I make sure I play it as close as possible to my selected tempo. Unlike fingering, pedaling, or voicing, I seem to have tempo down to an exact science!

New Concert Piano Music: "10 Biblical Portraits, Opus 1"

Cory Hall

10 Biblical Portraits, Opus 1, is a collection or cycle of ten liturgical concert works for piano composed in 2011 and published in 2012 by BachScholar Publishing. The complete publication consists of a total of 48 pages of music which takes a total of about 40 minutes for a complete performance. 10 Biblical Portraits need not be performed in entirety; however, all ten pieces performed in succession -- which portrays a chronological journey through the Old and New Testaments from Genesis to Revelation -- has a mesmerizing and profound effect on audiences as well as on the pianist performing them. In this respect, 10 Biblical Portraits is similar to other extended romantic cycles for piano, for example, such as Schumann's 30-minute Kreisleriana. ⇒ 10 BIBLICAL PORTRAITS, OPUS 1 ⇐

I believe that 10 Biblical Portraits, as a whole, represents some of the finest piano music composed so far in the 21st century. The cycle consists of beautiful, lyrical, exciting, virtuosic, and romantically-inspired piano music of the highest order that pianists and audiences will enjoy and cherish for years to come. Most of the pieces are ideal for church services that use classical style music, although their ideal use is in recitals or concerts for both liturgical and secular venues. They are also ideal for teachers and students in the studio. Although as a whole 10 Biblical Portraits are classified as technically "difficult," four or five of the ten are only of "moderate" difficulty and playable by advanced intermediate pianists (i.e., Genesis, Nocturne of Hope, Veni Sancte Spiritus, Enter the Gates). Contrasting with this, the ultra-dramatic The Great Flood of Noah could be considered as difficult and as musically taxing as most Liszt etudes.

One need not be a Christian to perform or enjoy pieces like The Great Flood of Noah or Heaven Awaits just as one need not be a Christian to perform or enjoy a work like Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. One thing I do not wish my 10 Biblical Portraits ever becomes is exclusively "Christian piano music." My goal is to have all pianists around the world discover these rich musical treasures, regardless of religious orientation. This being said, however, the cycle will undoubtedly acquire added significance if the performer and/or audience happen to be born-again Christians or at least have knowledge of the meaning of the titles and scripture upon which the pieces are based.

My activity as a composer and the process involved with composing 10 Biblical Portraits, Opus 1 are so unique and supernatural that I am still in awe today as to how I ever composed the ten pieces. I plan on soon devoting an entire lengthy blog article to this topic (i.e., my being "born again" through musical composition), but I will shorten it here. Having composed virtually nothing up until my 47th year, aside from a song cycle as a graduate student in 1994 and a few ragtime arrangements for YouTube in 2009-10, around the Spring of 2011 I was suddenly overtaken by incredibly powerful urges to compose at the piano (mostly through improvisation). Before this, I never considered myself a "composer" or "piano improviser" and I never majored in or earned any degrees in composition in any of the three universities from which I matriculated. I was first and foremost a classical pianist and piano teacher and, at the time, also a church organist.

Throughout 2011, beginning around March, some kind of powerful and mysterious force prompted me to churn out work after work (sacred and secular) with stunning regularity. I finally forced myself to stop around November, since all the works I composed were done in my head and I had not yet even owned any music software to write them down. In other words, I was composing much too frequently and at such a frenetic pace that I felt I had to put the brakes on. My standard mode of operation in 2011 was to compose a piece through improvisation and careful planning -- all in my head and memorized -- which I then quickly recorded on video before I forgot it all. Eventually in 2012 I purchased music composing software and began the arduous task of notating everything I had composed up to that point. (In fact, as of this writing I still have not written down my stunning three-movement Fantasy in G Minor, which was the last work I composed in 2011 before quitting.)

The turning point for me -- which turned my whole world upside down -- came in May-June 2011 when I was composing The Garden of Eden. The music flowed out of me like water, something I could not have possibly done on my own. I sat at the piano for a couple days and began improvising this gorgeous music with almost no effort. I didn't even have a title yet, since I always title my pieces after they have been composed. I remember for at least two days toiling around with possible titles for The Garden of Eden. After I finally decided on "The Garden of Eden," I began analyzing the music and the rich musical symbolism related Adam and Eve in the Garden and I could barely sleep for two days. I realized all the musical symbolism planted within the music had to have been none other than the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. It was at this point that I was officially "saved, "justified," or "born again" into the Christian faith. I simply could not ignore God or the Holy Spirit any longer. I became a true believer after I had composed The Garden of Eden because I realize I could not have done it on my own.

I continued to have similar experiences throughout 2011 in composing the other nine pieces in 10 Biblical Portraits, which was finally assembled and titled in November-December 2011. I believe with all sincerity that "God" or the "Holy Spirit" rather than "Cory Hall" was the true composer of my 10 Biblical Portraits, Opus 1. This explains why I named the cycle "Opus 1" and why each of the ten pieces bears the dedication "Soli Deo Gloria." (Before publishing "Opus 1" each of the ten pieces were published separately with dedications to fellow musicians and humans. "Soli Deo Gloria" applies only to the complete, unified ten-piece publication.)

Now that you know the history behind 10 Biblical Portraits, you are invited to listen to my individual video performances of each of the ten pieces. For maximum benefit, I ask that you find peace and solitude for 40 minutes and listen to all ten pieces in direct succession. For more information on each piece, you may visit the individual product page by clicking on each of the links below.

1. Genesis 2. The Garden of Eden 3. The Great Flood of Noah 4. Nocturne of Hope 5. Toccata Mysterium 6. Veni Sancte Spiritus 7. Grace Abounds 8. Rondo Jubilate 9. Heaven Awaits 10. Enter the Gates